Friday, October 30, 2009

Who's it gonna be?

USC at Oregon. It's the only game this week with national title implications (barring a major upset somewhere else, of course), and it's the game everyone will be watching ... unless you're like me and have kids, in which case you'll be walking around in some random neighborhood looking for candy while trying to get quarterly updates on your iPhone or cellular device of choice. Thank God for technology.

Anyway, there's a lot at stake in this one: Whichever team wins will have a clear path to the Pac-10 title and the Rose Bowl (possibly more if USC wins and gets some help). Arizona also has only one loss in conference play, but let's take them seriously for about five seconds and look at their schedule. After hosting Washington State this week, UA plays at Cal, Oregon, at Arizona State and at USC. Moving on ...

I said at the beginning of the year that Oregon would finish with at least a share of the Pac-10 title, and while I was strongly reconsidering that after the ugly loss to Boise, a win Saturday would make that a reality. I'm not one of those people who's too stubborn to reconsider an opinion that's obviously wrong, but I've been feeling better and better about that pick every week, and here's why:

9/19 No. 18 Utah 2-1 (0-0) W 31-24
9/26 No. 6 California 3-1 (1-0) W 42-3
10/03 Washington State 4-1 (2-0) W 52-6
10/10 @ UCLA 5-1 (3-0) W 24-10
10/24 @ Washington 6-1 (4-0) W 43-19

That's impressive, and keep in mind that QB Jeremiah Masoli missed the UCLA game with a knee injury. It's interesting to note that Oregon went to Seattle and beat Washington (the team that beat USC) by 24, but the game that's actually more relevant to this week's matchup is the one against Cal.

While Matt Barkley's numbers have gotten incrementally better throughout the season, USC's offense is still primarily ground-based. That'll need to continue against Oregon, because Barkley will find out quickly that Autzen isn't exactly Notre Dame Stadium -- just ask Mark Sanchez. He stepped in for an injured John David Booty in 2007 and was a respectable 26-for-41, but his two interceptions were the difference in a 24-17 Oregon win.

That's where Cal comes in. Joe McKnight and Allen Bradford are both very good, but Jahvid Best is by far the best (no pun intended) running back in the country, and Oregon absolutely shut him down in a 42-3 ass-whoopin' of a good Bears team four weeks ago. People don't usually look at Oregon as a stout defensive team, but don't sell them short this year: They're sixth in pass efficiency defense, 41st in rushing defense, 19th in scoring defense and 19th in total defense. I don't know if the Ducks can do to McKnight and Bradford what they did to Best-- USC's offensive line and receiving corps will have something to say about that -- but if the Trojans end up with less than 150 yards on the ground, Oregon wins (probably comfortably).

The other thing that scares me about USC is, surprisingly, the defense. I'm aware that the rush defense is fifth in the country and that Oregon needs to run the ball just as badly as USC does, but watching Oregon State put up 176 rushing yards last week (sacks not included) while throwing for 329 -- this after Notre Dame had 86 rushing yards and 265 through the air (fake field goal not included) -- makes me wonder if the last two weeks are more indicative of USC's defense than the first five. For that matter, even if the Trojans really do have one of the best defenses in the country, will they be able to stop an offense that's put up over 38 points per game since the season-opening loss? I'm not so sure.

I don't think I've picked against USC at any point in the last six years, but I just don't like how this one sets up for the Trojans. Oregon's offense has been firing on all cylinders just as USC's defense has been coming back down to Earth, and I can still picture Jahvid Best being swarmed under by about six Oregon defenders (probably because I watched it happen for three straight hours). When you throw in the fact that Autzen is an absolute nightmare for opposing quarterbacks -- and that USC's is a freshman -- all the signs point to the Ducks getting their biggest win in ... well, maybe ever.

Prediction: Oregon 30, USC 24.

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